Located an hour and a half from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park offers the “back to nature” option for city dwellers and a hiker’s wonderland. From numerous waterfalls, wildflower-filled meadows and unending mountain vistas, this park has everything you need to put the brakes on life’s non-stop carousel of craziness.
A visit to Shenandoah is guaranteed to teach travelers how to stop, look, and listen to the quieter side of existence. Here’s what you need to know about the park before visiting.
History of Shenandoah National Park
Native Americans traveled through and hunted in the region that eventually became Shenandoah National Park almost 9,000 years ago. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that European settlers began farming here. More farmers followed over the next 150 years, planting orchards, mining and logging the Blue Ridge Mountains, and establishing homesteads.
By the early 1900s, several entrepreneurs began building resorts in these hills and hollows, enticing the wealthy to vacation away from growing cities. When the National Park Service was created in 1916, many felt a park in the eastern United States was needed.
At that time, national parks only existed in places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Mesa Verde (out west). In 1925, the Park Service received permission to create Shenandoah National Park, stipulating that no federal funds could be used to purchase the land.
Shortly after his election win in 1928, President Herbert Hoover saw the need for a weekend retreat away from Washington, and he purchased 165 acres within the park, building a cabin and a few outbuildings, all with his own private funds. Rapidan Camp saw visitors like British Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald for an arms summit, and having the first “Summer Whitehouse” on site raised the probability that the park would, indeed, be realized.
However, there was the issue of purchasing land from private land owners who did not want to move. Initially, the Park Service told elderly residents they could stay in their homes until their deaths. However, a change in the Service’s administration ended up forcibly removing some landowners, and the state acquired some land through eminent domain, then donating it to the National Park Service.
When more land owners refused to sell, the park’s proponents changed tactics. In a scenario that does not place the National Park Service in good light, the region was touted as being full of poverty-stricken “hillbillies” who didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing.
Evidently believing this horrible marketing ploy changed the federal government’s stance, and evictions were instituted shortly after Franklin Roosevelt’s election to office, with many residences burned down after their owners were taken away so that the evictees could not return home.
Some outsiders began to call attention to the government’s actions, and the bad press helped to end the process. About 40 elderly residents that were still residing on their land could stay until their final days. The Park Service downsized the number of acres to be included in the park, as well.
By 1935, Shenandoah officially became a national park, and work immediately commenced building Skyline Drive through the newly acquired parcels.
Why Visit Shenandoah National Park in Your RV?
Shenandoah National Park offers the perfect opportunity for RVers to escape the city crowds of Washington, D.C. and enter the bucolic meadows, mountains, and forests.
Skyline Drive is a curving scenic byway that can be traversed in an RV, and the park has five campgrounds with hundreds of campsites available to motorhomes and travel trailers. It is an ideal spot to rest and relax or take your activity up a notch with some challenging hikes.
Places to Go
While anywhere in the park will provide you with beautiful views, there are a few spots that you need to check out when you visit.
Big Meadows Lodge
Visit this 80-year-old historic lodge, which has a dining room, taproom and a craft shop on site. The lodge is located at Mile 51 on Skyline Drive, close to Big Meadows and the Byrd Visitor Center. It has lodge rooms, rustic cabins, and hotel rooms available for rent.
The former summer home of President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover has been refurbished and is open for tours during the Summer and Fall seasons. Exhibits about the Hoover Presidency are located in the adjoining Prime Minister’s Cabin.
Dickey Visitor Center
The Dickey Visitor Center is located at Mile 4.6 on Skyline Drive and has ranger-led programs, a bookstore, movie, and park information.
Byrd Visitor Center
Located at Mile 51 on Skyline Drive, this center has information, first aid, a park movie, bookstore, and rangers to answer any questions you might have. This is also where backcountry permits are issued.
Known for its waterfalls, Shenandoah does not disappoint, with more than two dozen cascades in gorges, hollows, and canyons. Each requires a hike, but the end result is well worth the effort! Here are just a couple of the waterfalls, along with links to hiking maps for each:
- Overall Run Falls – park at Mile 21.1 to hike to the tallest waterfall in the park at 93 feet.
- Rose River Falls – Mile 49.4 is the starting point for a hike to this 67-foot waterfall with up to four cascades after a good rain.
- South River Falls – Mile 62.8 will begin the hike to the third tallest waterfall in the park.
- Jones Run Falls – Mile 84.1 takes you on a less strenuous hike to Jones Run Falls.
Things to Do
Other than stopping in at the places listed above, there’s plenty to do inside the park. You won’t be bored while enjoying all that Shenandoah has to offer.
Shenandoah National Park has over 70 mountain streams that offer abundant fishing grounds, but to keep the populations of brook trout healthy, rangers regulate fishing access. Check the List of Regulations before dropping a line.
The park is equipped with five campgrounds that open seasonally as weather allows. Each has improved sites, but no hookups. Potable water and dump stations are at all but Lewis Mountain Campground. Here is a list of each campground with links to opening schedules, regulations, and maps:
- Big Meadows Campground
- Lewis Mountain Campground
- Mathews Arm Campground
- Loft Mountain Campground
- Dundo Group Campground
There is also backcountry dispersed camping throughout the park. A permit is required.
With over 500 miles of trails within the park boundaries, hiking is, by far, the most popular form of outdoor activity in Shenandoah. Blazed trails are marked: blue blazes indicate hiking trails, white blazes delineate the Appalachian Trail and yellow blazes designate horse trails. Be sure to use a map and come prepared with proper clothing and water.
Dogs are allowed on many of the trails throughout Shenandoah National Park, but there are nine trails that are off-limits for pets. Check with a ranger for these specific trails.
Bring your own bike or go with a guided tour through Shenandoah, as the entire Skyline Drive is open to bicyclists. However, because the road has many blind curves and steep hills, extreme caution is advised. Bikes are not allowed on trails or through grassy meadows.
Many of the trails through the park are designated as horse trails. Some are gravel paths and others are steep, rocky trails that offer a challenge to several skill levels. Guided trail rides are available from Skyland Resort in the spring, summer, and fall.
You may wish to bring your own mount, and there are designated trailer parking areas, but the park does not offer overnight horse facilities. However, backcountry camping with horses is allowed but a free permit is required. Here’s a list of Horseback Riding Regulations.
Shenandoah has several large picnic areas located throughout the park along Skyline Drive. They offer picnic tables, grills, and are situated at scenic viewpoints. Here are a few, followed by the mile marker of their locations:
- Dickey Ridge – Mile 4.6
- Elkwallow – Mile 24.1
- Pinnacles – Mile 36.7
- Big Meadows – Mile 51.2
- Lewis Mountain – Mile 57.5
- South River – Mile 62.8
- Dundo – Mile 83.7
When to Visit Shenandoah National Park
The park is open year-round, but roads may be closed based on inclement weather. With summer activities like fly fishing, hiking, and bicycling, Shenandoah sees more visitors than during the cold weather months of December, January, and February.
However, winter does offer spectacular scenery with a fresh snowfall, and spring brings with it the budding of deciduous trees and shrubs. Autumn colors present prime viewing opportunities for a scenic drive, and the park becomes the number one attraction in the valley.
Where RVers Can Stay
Shenandoah has five campgrounds that are opened as weather allows, so RVers who wish to stay in the park should check online regarding opening dates for each of the campgrounds.
There are literally hundreds of improved campsites, but none of them have hookups. If you would rather have access to water and electricity, here are a few campgrounds outside the park boundaries for more options:
- Shenandoah Valley Campground
- Walnut Hills Campground & RV Park
- Harrisonburg/Shenandoah Valley KOA
- Riverside Camping
Getting To and Around Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah lies 90 miles west of Washington, D.C., running through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park can be accessed from the north end via Interstate 66 from the DC area, or from I-64 from Richmond, Virginia, at the south end.
Skyline Drive is the major road stretching 105 miles through the park, from Front Royale (the north entrance) through Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap and ending at Rockfish Gap (the southern entrance). The road is a two-lane paved thoroughfare. Virtually all of Shenandoah National Park’s sights, amenities, and hiking trails lie along this boulevard.
Share The Secret
Shenandoah National Park offers the gift of tranquility in the midst of chaos. Its rolling mountain landscapes remind us that time continues on here, but at a slower, more meaningful pace.
When we encounter the staggering beauty of a crashing waterfall in the forest, we realize that the sound of Mother Nature can be loud but magnetic, drawing us closer, as if to vocalize her secrets to us. That’s when it hits us: sharing her confidences makes us an accessory, a witness to the mysterious splendor that lies just outside the city on this lovely slice of Virginia real estate.
Have you ever been to Shenandoah National Park? What were your experiences there?